• Fire They stabilize the fire of Castellón and all the evicted return home
  • Castellón The fire of Alto Mijares burns in five days as much surface as in six years in Castellón

Four generations of the Miravet family have spent years touring the bowels of the Sierra de Espadán Natural Park in Castellón with their mules. In the small town of Eslida his grandfather León and then his father began to extract cork from the centuries-old cork oak forests. In the same way as then, walking long forest paths for hours to, with skill axe in hand, peel the cork oaks that they carry in the animals and that they then treat to make a precious cork for the wineries. Spain is the second largest producer of cork in the world after Portugal, and Valencian cork is highly appreciated for its thickness and hardness, which makes it the most appropriate for great wines and reserves. His life and family business revolve since 1800 around a forest of which they have become owners. Yes, owners. "You offered to buy them the cork and they sold you the whole farm," he admits.

80% of the lands of the Sierra de Espadán have an owner and, some, less and less, can still live on them not without difficulties. Most abandon in the face of regulatory complications, low profitability and even the boycott they suffer. Neighbors and mayors of the municipalities affected by the fires such as Villanueva de Viver, increasingly voracious, demand the cleaning of the mountains, but in the background is the abandonment of the economic exploitation of the forest and the persistent drought, which turns them into huge masses of fuel.

The National Association of Forest Companies (ASEMFO) has been claiming for years as measures for prevention and extinction that the sustainable use of forests be promoted, which can range from forest biomass, to generate biomaterials or biofuels, to the classic ones such as logging, cork or the promotion of extensive livestock. This has been done again after the fire that has devastated more than 4,600 hectares in Castellón.

The forest brigades cool the area without flame of the fire of Villanueva de Viver.EFE

Adolfo Miravet has been looking all week at the mountain, at the column of smoke and the glow of the fire that has come to threaten the Natural Park of the Sierra de Espadán. It was the authorities' worst fear and his own. As a businessman, and as president of the Association of Foresters of the Valencian Community, that is, of those who cultivate, care for and exploit the mountains, he knows the consequences of the tragedy. "The environmental disaster is compounded by the fact that we ran out of raw materials. Burnt cork is not suitable for food and our main direct customer is the wineries. For a cork oak to give cork at least 16 years pass. Insurance? This is not a pasture. No one assures you the mountain, least of all now. If they burn, you lose everything," Miravet admits.

His company is one of the few that works in this forest area. "There was a wooden one, but the owner retired and it's going to close. He cannot find staff and it is not profitable for him to extract wood here. The forestry sector is no longer profitable." Of the sawmills in the area there are only two that barely feed two pallet factories in the region, which import wood from other places.

This profitability of the forest disappeared due to factors such as depopulation, the abandonment of agricultural and forestry tasks and the regulation that strangles them. "What has been burned are large masses of four-meter pines that have colonized what were once almond and olive trees and that it is forbidden to touch. In some cases they are dead trees from a great snowfall that occurred in 2017 and knocked them down and that nobody could collect because they can face millionaire fines, "he warns.

Denunciations and sabotage

Those who live in the forest are permanently observed, subjected to denunciations and even sabotage. "Stolen chainsaws, chops from the machinery cut, sugar or salt in the tanks... It's all happened in forest management companies that we know. Like pruning of regulated pines that has had to be paralyzed for three months by a complaint. Or the prohibition of having goats because the neighbors said that it was illegal cattle that destroyed the land, when we are the first to take care of it because we live from it, "laments Adolfo who dates this overprotection from the late 90s.

Forest management has become so cumbersome that it causes owners to give up, unless they are a town hall. The Valencian mountain are smallholdings, often inherited even ignoring the boundaries, and that almost nobody wants to exploit. "It's not done because there's no money or subsidies, not even to clean up. The forest is very beautiful, but then not a hard to maintain it, "recalls the businessman. Aid for forestry work was once 2,800 euros per hectare. Today they are 800 euros. The Next Generation funds of the European Union will fatten them, but the subsidies are slow and companies desist.

Extraction of cork in the cork oaks of the Sierra de Espadán.CEDIDA

Pablo Talens is a member of ASEMFO and owns one of them in Mogente (Valencia). "The forestry business fabric is unstructured. The few that remain do so as best they can with low prices for forest services and lack of public aid. The administrative obstacles are constant due to conservationist legislation that does not allow us to save the mountain, "he explains to ELMUNDO. "If you want to work, you have to expose yourself to being denounced, because otherwise we can't do it," he laments. "If you want to work, you have to expose yourself to being denounced, because otherwise we can't do it," he laments.

With the origin of the fire under investigation, the Ecologist Group for the Conservation of Natural Spaces (Gecen) already points to the work that was being carried out. "The cleaning of forests is an environmental fake that begs for public subsidies and is useless," they said in a statement.

For Talens it is another sign that there is an education problem. "Anyone sees that there are trees cut in an area, takes a picture and files a complaint or goes to the press. Cutting trees is like cutting your hair, something necessary that is done with a management project, "he explains. "The trees on the farm are counted, measured, growth is calculated and only what grows per year is allowed to be cut down. Never again," he says. The regret is that this lack of forestry activity has led to the self-regulation of the forest, which only comes by fire.

"It is clear that this model does not work, but this is how we have been at least in the Valencian Community since 1994, when 300,000 hectares burned. Now there is a lot of commotion, but then everything relaxes and we forget that we need an annual forest economic fund and political vision. This year, for prevention there will be 10 million from the Generalitat for the entire Valencian Community, insufficient when at least 100 euros per hectare per year are needed to make a good management. According to the latest investment and employment study, the annual investment ratio per forest hectare is 34.29 euros."

Long-term drought

Miravet and Talens agree that summer will be worse if it does not rain, and a lot, in April. The lack of rainfall in the last three years means that Spain has entered "an incipient long-lasting drought", according to Aemet and 2022 was the sixth driest year since 1961. "In the short term, more droughts are likely to mean more fires as vegetation dries up," says Ben Cook of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The lack of rain and low humidity dry out the abundant vegetation that grows unmanaged in environments without economic, agricultural, livestock or forestry activity, and provides the fuel. Under these conditions, any spark ignites the powder keg.

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  • Castellón (Spain)
  • Fire
  • Drought